While Colonial and Classical Revival homes are the ideal design for many homeowners, some may find them a little plain. Most of these homes look similar and have a uniform symmetrical, structured feel.
Let me introduce to you the rebel of American home styles – the Victorian. When it hit the scene, it swept the nation. Unconventional, artistic, and never seen before on American soil, the Victorian style turned American home construction upside down in the mid-to-late 19th century.
If you want to purchase a home with a little flair, here’s what you should know about this style.
History of the Victorian Home
As indicated by their name, Victorian homes find their roots in the Victorian period. This era roughly corresponds to when Queen Victoria ruled Britain from 1837 to 1901. People of the Victorian era looked back romantically on European medieval times and the Italian Renaissance. Part of this came from trying to reach back to what they thought was a purer society in touch with nature. They wanted to recreate the rolling, peaceful European countryside in or on the fringe of gritty, dangerous cities.
New and efficient technology during the Industrial Revolution made architectural features of the medieval and Italian Renaissance structures inexpensive. People with a vast range of incomes could afford Victorian decorative home features. Rich or poor, you could build your own little European villa here in America.
How to Spot a Victorian Style House
The distinctive features of Victorian homes make them easy to spot. Here are a few key structural characteristics you should look for when observing a Victorian style house:
- Steeply pitched roof
- Textured shingles
- Partial or full, asymmetrical porch
- Asymmetrical facade
While there are basic features that link many homes to the Victorian era, there are still a wide variety of variations to this style. Here’s a breakdown of each style and what to look for when identifying a home.
The Italianate home style migrated from England to the U.S. during the 1840s. This style emulated medieval farmhouses and the Italian countryside.
This movement was a rebellion against the traditional and architectural ways of the past. The Romantic Movement voiced a desire for freedom of architectural expression, one that focused on organic features that complimented the building’s natural surroundings.
The Italianate style gained popularity all over the U.S. in the mid 1800s. Furthermore, the industrial era provided access to mass-produced, manufactured goods that made it easier to build homes. It became a popular style for urban and rural residences and commercial and institutional buildings.
Key features of Italianate architecture include:
- Symmetrically placed, narrow windows
- Low-pitched roof
- Cornice with ornate brackets
- Decorative entry way covered by a porch or overhang
- Long, overhanging eaves
- Quoins (masonry blocks at the corner of a wall)
- Two to three stories in height
- Curved arches over doors and windows
- Small cupola (short, tower-type structure) centered on top of the roof
Gothic Revival homes mimic Gothic churches and buildings found throughout Europe and built in medieval times. European Gothic structures are intense-looking buildings with pointed arches reaching to the sky and gargoyles watching over you. Tall and foreboding, Gothic structures have an eerie and at times scary, presence about them. Gothic Revival homes aren’t as intense as medieval Gothic structures, but you can see the relationship between the two.
Again, the Industrial Revolution played a heavy hand in making Gothic Revival homes popular. These homes are built of wood cut with steam-powered saws – new technology for that period – that cut wood more efficiently at a more cost-effective price. Also, the development of a steam-powered scroll saw made decorative verge board easier and less expensive to make.
Strawberry Hill, home of London’s Horace Walpole, is a great example of a Gothic Revival.
Key features of Gothic Revival architecture include:
- Asymmetrical footprint
- Decorative verge board along the roofline
- Steeply pitched roofs
- Lots of sharp arches
- Castle-like towers
- Distinctive board and plank vertical siding
- Many decorative features to highlight eaves, roofs, roof lines, porches, windows and doorways
- Porches with turned columns or posts
Queen Anne Style
When most people think of Victorian homes, Queen Anne style is what they think of. Excessively decorative, large floor plans, and a castle-like corner tower are the most popular features of this style home. Cherry-picking elements from previous Victorian and other architectural styles, Queen Anne homes mash-up many styles.
For its time, the Queen Anne style was unique because it allowed an architect to turn a home into a piece of art. Most builders went crazy with decorative features. Builders used a variety of colored shingles, clapboard, bricks and paints to create patterns and designs. Brick and wood, and layers of verge board covering the exterior offered different textures and visual complexity.
The popularity of Queen Anne homes grew through the publishing of the first architectural magazine “The American Architect and Building News” and pattern books. These once beautiful, intricately designed homes were soon deemed to be gaudy eyesores.
Key features of Queen Anne architecture include:
- Round towers or turrets at the corner of the house
- Tons of decorative elements like multiple balustrades, shingle patterns, paint colors, etc.
- Shingled roof designs
- Cross gables
- Polygonal or round corner towers
- Patterned shingles
- Full width or large porches
- Prominent bay windows
- Patterned masonry
- Asymmetrical footprint
- Asymmetrical placement of windows and doors
- Steeply pitched roof
Second Empire and Mansard Style
The Second Empire is also referred to as the French Second Empire style or Mansard style. It dates back to the 17th century. The mansard roof is the key design element in this style, which was originally created by the French architect Francois Mansart. The mansard roof created attic space which made it both functional and fashionable.
The Second Empire style became popular in the U.S. between 1860 and 1870. It was viewed as a contemporary style, since its design features mimicked those of new buildings or structures. One of the best-known examples of this style is the Philadelphia City Hall, built between 1871 and 1881.
Key features of Second Empire and Mansard architecture include:
- Mansard roof
- Iron roof crest
- Patterned shingles
- Ornate window surrounds or dormers
- Eaves with brackets
Known for the presence of shingles on wall surfaces, the Shingle style house drew inspiration from the early shingled buildings in the New England colonies. It was most often used by American architects like H.H. Richardson and Frank Lloyd Wright. This style spread through the country but never surpassed the popularity of the Queen Anne Victorian style house.
Key features of Shingle architecture include:
- Shingled roofs and walls
- Asymmetrical facade
- Irregular roof lines
- Round shingled towers
- Windows with many panes
- Moderate pitched roofs
- Cross gables
- Wide porches
The Stick style dates from 1860 to 1890. The Stick-Eastlake style, named after Charles Locke Eastlake, was the work of an English architect and writer. Charles was against the substitution of machinery and believed in the quality of craftsmanship.
The Stick-Eastlake structures are two or three stories, with large overhanging eaves with exposed trusses, rectangular windows, gables and sharply pitched roofs.
Key features of Stick-Eastlake architecture include:
- Decorative brackets
- Square turned posts
- Center gables
- Asymmetrical roofs
- Rectangle top windows
- Paired and single doorways
With the mass production and transportation of wood, home builders could access wood materials from almost anywhere for cheaper prices. Home builders would add wood trim or other ornate wood features to traditional Folk homes, giving it the name Folk Victorian style. This style was very common and is found in turn-of-the-century western-settled towns.
Key features of Folk Victorian architecture include:
- Spindle work on porches
- Cornice brackets
- L-shaped gables
- Asymmetrical floor plans
- Italianate and Queen Anne detail inspiration
Richardsonial Romanesque style was also known as Richardson, named after architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Richardson incorporated this style into residential communities after adopting it for public buildings. The center of these homes includes a large gathering place, similar to the idea of a medieval great hall.
The structure of the home, itself, is almost always masonry, and the materials used include stone and brick. The exterior of the home often incorporates a conical roof and decorative, bold ornaments such as carved figures. Finally, the interior and exterior are both marked by arched openings – windows, doorways and ceilings.
Key Features of Richardson architecture include:
- Large, grand structural appearance
- Variety of masonry incorporated in design
- Arched openings
- Turret or towered, conical roofing
- Statement accent pieces including large carvings, Celtic motifs, carved figures, etc.
- Queen Anne details including bay windows and decorative panels
The Octagonal style is a remarkable yet somewhat rare architectural style. Some notable designers, such as Thomas Jefferson, built octagon buildings in the U.S. However, the Octagonal style rarely appeared until it’s reintroduction to the public through Orson Squire Fowler in 1848.
In the book, The Octagon House: A House for All, Fowler promoted this style. He viewed the octagon form as a healthy, economical and contemporary innovation in architecture. He also thought it provided more sunlight and, as such, a method for saving on heating costs.
Key Features of Octagonal architecture include:
- Octagonal shaped buildings
- Low-pitched hipped roofs
- Brackets at the cornice
- Partial or fully surrounding porch
- Some versions have octagonal cupolas
- Extensive overhanging eaves
Things to Consider When Buying a Victorian Home
If you love the characteristics Victorian style homes have to offer, there are a few things you should consider before purchasing one. Since they tend to be older construction, you may have to do your due diligence before proceeding. Here is a list of tasks to do during your home shopping process to keep important details organized:
- Make a list: Jot down every feature you’ll need to examine before purchasing the home. Your list should include windows and doors, the foundation, porches, exterior walls, etc.
- Take photos: Snapping photos will give you reference points to look back at when reviewing your housing options.
- Begin at the top: You will want to closely examine all features starting at the top to the bottom of the home.
- Inspect the walls: Just like the chimney and roof, you need to inspect the walls of the home from different perspectives. Different types of exteriors show various types of wear and tear.
- Spend some time on the porch: Look for signs of rot, signaled by weak floorboards and peeling paint. Be sure to thoroughly examine the piers holding up the porch (for structural stability as well as rot) and that there are no damaged railings.
- Look out the windows: Read up on historically accurate windows to make sure the windows in the home are not original, and that they’re at least compatible with the current frame. This is to ensure you’re not overpaying for a feature that is not included and to assess for any leakage that may occur from ill-fitted, updated windows.
- Check the systems: This includes hot water, electricity and heating. Since the home is older and these systems are more modern inventions, you’ll want to make sure they’re functional and safe.
- Visit the basement: Your main concern in the basement will be water damage, or signs of it. Be on the lookout for puddles, stains, clogged drains, etc. If a sump pump is present, that may indicate that water damage has been an issue in the past. Ask questions to confirm when and if there has been any damage to the basement.
- Walk around: When walking around the home, pay specific attention to the floor. It will give you a good idea of what has or has not occurred in terms of damage and updates. Look for sagging or creaking, uneven floors, and water damage potential near sinks and bathtubs.
- Don’t forget the attic: You will want to give the attic a lot of your attention. First and foremost, evaluate the durability of the current roof to ensure there is no current damage. You’ll also want to make sure (if the home includes HVAC) that the attic has been properly insulated to compensate for this update. Finally, make sure the attic isn’t an unsuspecting home to wildlife, to include damage and current habitation signs such as nests and hives.
Victorian style homes definitely break that somewhat mundane mold. Dramatic and dynamic features make them some of the most interesting architectural styles out there.
What’s your favorite architectural style? We want to hear from you. Please leave your answers in the comments below.
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